05/10/2015 06:17 BST | Updated 03/10/2016 06:12 BST

Parallel Universes Collide: Drug Control and Human Rights at the UN

On Monday 28th September 2015, a high-level panel debate on 'the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights' took place at the 30th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. This was a long-awaited, historic moment. The impact of drug control policies on the enjoyment of human rights has been extensively and irrefutably documented over many years but genuine, open discussion on these issues has been very limited at the UN.

At the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, there has traditionally been great resistance to the idea that human rights should underpin the global drug control response. In that forum, many governments have argued that human rights are under the purview of UN bodies based in Geneva, the seat of the health and human rights entities, and do not have a place in Vienna, where crime, law enforcement and drugs are the focus. This has somewhat improved over the years and in 2008, the CND adopted its first human rights resolution, prior to this human rights-based language was frequently resisted and outright vetoed. Although, last year negotiations almost broke down over tensions regarding the continued use of the death penalty for drug offences.


Source: Ann Fordham

In parallel with a push for greater recognition of the human rights dimensions of drug policies at the CND, advocates have also called on the human rights mechanisms of the UN to weigh in on the drugs issue. Over the years, various UN human rights experts such as the Special rapporteurs on the right to health and on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have all raised concerns regarding various aspects of punitive drug control policies. But high-level, visible political engagement on this matter within the forum of the Human Rights Council (HRC) itself has taken time to achieve.

The momentum created by the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) next April has encouraged some governments to look more closely at the incongruence between drug control and human rights. In March 2015, a resolution was passed at the HRC mandating the Office of the High Commissioner to undertake a study on the impact of the world drug problem on human rights and calling for a high-level panel on the issue at the Council.

The panel discussion was compelling and interactive. Flavia Pansieri, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave comprehensive opening remarks and Ruth Dreifuss, former President of the Swiss Confederation and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy moderated the discussion. Panelists included representatives from the Government of Colombia, the West African Commission on Drug Policy, the World Health Organisation and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I was honoured invited to join the panel as the only civil society representative on behalf of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a global network of 140 NGOs collectively working to reform drug policies.

The use of the death penalty for drugs offences and the violation of the right to life was raised several times by panelists and member states. There was still disagreement between those governments arguing to retain the death penalty and those calling for its abolition, pointing out that under international law, the death penalty may only be applied for the most serious crimes, and drug offences did not fall into this category. The many, widespread and devastating human rights impacts of the 'war on drugs' were recounted during the discussion and it was noted that the burden of the overly punitive and repressive nature of drug control has been disproportionately borne by vulnerable and marginalised groups, many of whom are engaged at a low level in the drug trade driven by basic subsistence needs.

As the only civil society representative on the panel, I drew attention to the damaging lack of coherence between the parallel universes of UN bodies in Vienna and Geneva, and called on the HRC to ensure that there continues to be attention from the Council to the serious and widespread human rights violations caused by an overly punitive and repressive global response to drugs. Towards this end, the Council should consider appointing a Special Rapporteur on drug policy and human rights.

Next April's important UNGASS is an opportune moment to align these parallel universes and ensure that global drug policy genuinely has the promotion and protection of human rights at its centre. The devastating human rights violations committed in the name of drug control must end. We will be judged by history.